After an unfavorable report from a Council analyst and heaps of criticism from civic leaders, County Executive Isiah Leggett has pulled his proposal for a Montgomery County Independent Transit Authority.
How long the proposal remains shelved is unclear. Leggett requested that the Council pull it from its discussion of state legislative issues on Monday. Leggett told the Washington Post on Saturday that “we’re kicking around some ideas.”
The hastily introduced state bill would’ve enabled the county to create the ITA and quickly drew the ire of groups as disparate as the Montgomery County Civic Federation, Clarksburg Chamber of Commerce, Montgomery County Young Republicans and the main county employee union.
Representatives of each testified at a public hearing on the state bill on Friday night in which a few state delegates also criticized Leggett’s effort.
The ITA would plan, design, engineer, build, fund and operate the county’s existing Ride On bus service and planned Rapid Transit System. It would do so through a new transit tax and by issuing its own bonds.
Glenn Orlin, the Council’s chief transportation analyst, issued a memo on Friday in which he questioned the need for the ITA on a few fronts, including the ability of the county’s existing Department of Transportation to implement bus rapid transit.
“An even better approach would be to shelve the bill for now, to work on a comprehensive solution over the next six months, and then file a revised State bill (if necessary) to help implement that solution,” Orlin wrote. “It is difficult to imagine that an ITA — or any solution — could be in place before FY17, so taking this time would be a good idea.”
The appearance of the late-filed state bill on Jan. 23 — a week before the Jan. 30 public hearing — irked many.
Council members said they were caught off-guard by the introduction of the bill. At the public hearing Friday, Leggett said the idea has been in the works for three years, since a county task force recommended it.
He also said many of those claiming to be opposed to the ITA are really opposed because they’re against bus rapid transit, the driving force behind creating the authority.
“The only thing that moved this at this point in time was the legislative calendar in Annapolis,” Leggett said. “This is the best opportunity, the best chance that we have to take advantage of.”
The public hearing on Friday also included quite a bit of confusion about what the state bill would actually do.
The County Council would still have to approve capital projects in its regular six-year budget and it would have to approve any countywide transit tax rate.
It would also have the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO) continue to represent Ride On drivers and other county employees with “substantially similar” collective bargaining law.
Orlin wrote that it could actually work in the union’s favor, as the Council could no longer reject binding arbitration and the ITA would be “stuck with an unfavorable arbitration award and consequently leave the Council with a required tax rate to fund it.”
Still, MCGEO President Gino Renne testified against the bill on Friday, claiming the five-member board that would run the ITA may not be as labor-friendly as county government.
“The ITA bill removes limits for increasing property taxes. If approved by the state legislature, the bill would give the county the required state authority to establish a self-governing transit body — the ITA — to be funded by an added property tax that would not be subject to the current County Charter limit on property tax increases approved by county residents in 2010,” reads a Change.org petition against the ITA created by Bethesda resident Jim Turner.
The petition has more than 1,300 supporters. Orlin wrote that the county already can raise taxes above the Charter limit to fund transportation projects — including bus rapid transit. As with the ITA, any tax raise above that limit would require a unanimous County Council vote:
Under SB 828 (Senator Madaleno’s bill) from several years ago, the County already has authority to enact a special taxing district to raise money to pay for the capital costs of transportation improvements — including BRT — which also is exempt from the Charter limit. Under the Executive’s proposal the Mass Transit Tax would ultimately be increased to cover this cost. There’s no difference whether this money is raised through an ITA tax or a countywide special district tax. In both cases the Council would be acting on the tax, and would get the full credit or blame for that action.